For those who knew David Bitner, a gregarious, 6-foot-5 bear of a man, it was jarring to see him requiring a motorized scooter in January, only weeks after he was elected chairman of the Republican Party of America's biggest battleground state.
The startling images kept coming: Bitner moving to a wheelchair and still hitting GOP chicken dinners in every corner of the state; Bitner in April announcing his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease, his sense of humor still well intact along with his constant travel schedule; Bitner by August struggling to speak but still attending party functions and traveling the state to celebrate both the GOP and World War II veterans; and finally Bitner announcing his pending resignation barely a week ago because of health problems.
On Thursday, Bitner died at his Monticello home at age 62.
A former legislator, newspaperman and farmer, Bitner's sudden death from the progressive neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS generated condolences and fond memories from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"It has been the honor of a lifetime to work by chairman Bitner's side. Not only was Dave a born leader, he was an exemplary man in every sense. In honor of his example, I am committed to ensure that the Republican Party of Florida continues its tradition of service to our beloved state," said state party vice chairman Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, who is expected to be formally elected chairman later this month.
Raised on a farm in Maryland, Bitner relocated to Southwest Florida to work for years as general manager of the Port Charlotte-based Charlotte Sun-Herald. He was elected to the Florida House representing that area in 1992 and in Tallahassee earned a reputation as a staunch conservative whose kindness and amiable style earned him friends on both sides of the aisle.
"Dave was wonderful to work with in the Florida House of Representatives, and he showed all of us what it means to be a gifted negotiator and a dignified politician. He leaves behind the legacy of a true statesman," said Democratic national chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who served with him in the Florida House.
State Democratic chairman Rod Smith also worked with him in the Legislature: "Throughout his entire career, chairman Bitner was a tireless advocate for the people of Florida and the state and party he dearly loved.
"His strength of character and dedication were respected by all who knew and worked with him, even those of us on the opposing side. His memory will not be forgotten."
Bitner overwhelmingly won the party chairmanship after a contentious election with a crowded field, but animosity quickly died down as he reached out to grass roots activists across the state. The ALS diagnosis drew speculation that he might step down early, but Bitner — with his wife Wendy at his side — quickly showed his determination not to slow down.
"Knowing that chairman Bitner faced an uphill battle with his illness did not make this morning's news any less of a shock," said Gov. Rick Scott. "Dave Bitner was a big man with a vibrant personality and a vision to match."
In announcing his diagnosis in April, Bitner spoke of his faith and optimism that he would beat the odds and survive a decade.
"In stature and heart, Dave was a giant," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "Throughout his life, every endeavor he took on was done so with passion, endurance, and resilience. His battle with ALS was no different. While we mourn for a life lost far too early, we are thankful that Dave is not suffering any longer."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]